Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon
Authors: Mia Bloom and Sophia Moskalenko
Publisher: Stanford University Press, 2021. 256 pages.
Reviewer: Matthew N. Hannah ǀ March 2022
QAnon has generated significant scholarly attention in recent years, especially in the wake of the January 6th Capitol riot, and scholars have only just begun to analyze the incredibly complex movement. Pastels and Pedophiles thus provides a good resource for general readers interested in QAnon. The book does particularly important work contextualizing QAnon within a longer history of anti-Semitic conspiratorial thinking, detailing linkages between key aspects of QAnon beliefs and anti-Semitic thinking, comparing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion with fake news or blood libel with adrenochrome harvesting. Such historical comparisons are interesting for thinking through some of the underlying ideological dynamics within QAnon. The book also offers a very useful summary of the international spread of QAnon, which will be an important resource for scholars and other readers.
In addition, and I think this is the book’s particular strength, the authors provide some very good analysis detailing how gender plays a central role in the conspiracy. Despite widespread stereotyping of QAnon as made up of older, conservative, white men, the events of January 6th revealed a stark truth: the role of women in the QAnon conspiracy theory. Of the five people who died that day, as rioters stormed the Capitol Building, two were women in their thirties who joined the mob because of their beliefs in the online conspiracy theory, which had quickly spread from the dark corners of 4chan in 2017 to mainstream social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. In Pastels and Pedophiles, Mia Bloom and Sophia Moskalenko tackle the particular gender dynamics at work in QAnon, offering an important look inside the social and psychological incentives for female adherents to join the movement.
The book describes key influencers in the movement, showcasing women who not only participated in QAnon but actively developed the theory. Bloom and Moskalenko describe how QAnon subverted social-media pages dedicated to the Save the Children non-profit, espousing theories about pedophilia and child trafficking by powerful elites. This emphasis on gender is useful for advancing a more substantial view of QAnon being comprised of various demographics rather than the stereotype that it is predominately the domain of incels and boomers. In particular, the authors provide some nicely detailed lists of women influencers who became involved in QAnon: “Yoga-centered Instagram accounts went from posting inspirational messages adorned with serene images of light and love to being littered with posts about child exploitation, sex crimes, the devil, and an imminent war between good and evil” (74).
Unfortunately, the book is also marred by imprecision in the discussion of women within the movement. While I applaud the authors’ focus on such an important topic, I would have appreciated a bit more nuance in some of their analyses. On the one hand, they do good work in raising the important issue of gender in conspiracy theories. They point out that women in such extremist movements have been typically imagined as “lacking agency” (54) and that women have responsibility for such ideologies (55). But then there are also some strange aspects when they rely on unsubstantiated and openly ideological arguments, such as when they assert, without any citation, that “[m]any women who supported Bernie over Hillary ended up in QAnon” or when they claim that “women, whom we ordinarily assume are left wing, have also ended up supporting QAnon” (72). I don’t agree that women are necessarily left wing nor have I seen evidence that “many women” who supported Bernie over Hillary turned to QAnon. Perhaps the authors have data for these claims, but they don’t provide it, and so these claims feel reflective of just the authors’ own prejudices and preferences. They try to imagine why women might join QAnon, often reducing such motivations to concerns over children. Certainly, this is one motivating factor, but there are many reasons why women might join QAnon, including anger over perceived political corruption, religious fundamentalism, or far-right indoctrination. In my research, QAnon is made up of a wide range of individuals attracted to the theory because they felt that mainstream political actors were inherently corrupt. This makes attempting to pin down any one QAnon ideology very difficult.
The book includes somewhat sloppy comparisons between QAnon and extremism. While I’m not suggesting that QAnon is not extremist, I think we should be more precise than simply stating, as Bloom and Moskalenko do, that QAnon relies on internet echo chambers the same way “jihadi groups operate,” which seems unhelpful and imprecise (68). In another section, Bloom and Moskalenko compare QAnon to ISIS in recruiting women (58). Such comparisons are inexact and seem more designed for “normie” fear mongering than actual analysis. This is especially prominent in their discussion of women in extremist movements, in which they superficially compare such disparate political and terrorist groups as Baader-Meinhof, the Basque separatist party Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, the Irish Republican Army, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Boko Haram, the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party), and Ku Klux Klan (52-55). Such a catalogue is meant to suggest, I suppose, that women are involved in extremism everywhere despite claims that such movements are predominately male, but the complete lack of historical specificity or nuance in comparing these very different sociohistorical movements as “extremist” seems ahistorical and unhelpful, especially given that QAnon is a conspiracy theory, not a political liberation front despite their presence in the Capitol protests.
This reductive tendency is also evident in the authors’ over-reliance on somewhat simplified psychological accounts of anon motivations. Unlike most people who experience upheaval in their lives, they argue, who “pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and move on” after personal or professional distress, QAnon adherents are drawn to conspiracies:
In this situation, personal distress is compounded by an unraveling of social norms that tether us to reality. As a result, ideas of right and wrong, of life’s goals and meaning are all upended. This vulnerable state is what psychologists call ‘unfreezing’ . . . To an unfrozen individual, a group’s ideology is less important than the newfound community. Gratitude for support from a radical group mixes with resentment against those who caused the unfreezing, and, with time, the individual can embrace both the group’s radical ideology and its radical agenda. (82)
Later in the book, the authors gesture toward some psychological solutions to QAnon, pointing out that many anons struggle with mental illness and isolation. They acknowledge the utter inability of American healthcare to treat mental health at scale, and argue that the American Psychological Association “must direct resources toward studying beliefs in conspiracy theories” (138). I appreciate their effort to tackle a highly complex problem even if some of their ideas seem vague and unclear. Cognitive therapy, a QAnon’s Anonymous, volunteering, and mindfulness seem to me to be somewhat simplistic responses to the immensity of this problem, but I do think these are a starting point, and I appreciate the effort to schematize an organized response, even if I don’t agree about the tactics themselves.
I also found the recurrent notion that QAnon believers are somehow recruited by some nebulous administrative entity, as might happen with a terrorist network for example, to be misleading. While it would be comforting to imagine a centralized—or even decentralized—control mechanism that is actively recruiting disaffected individuals into an organized movement, the truth is far more complex as well as interesting. And frightening. True, there are recruitment mechanisms for “red-pilling” new recruits, as Bloom and Moskalenko point out, but this is largely self-generated by members themselves because they believe they are exposing truths the American people need to hear. Because the book approaches QAnon with a tone of combined disgust and bemusement, consistently reducing QAnon to a terrorist network or describing the conspiracy with terms such as “loony,” I don’t feel the book lives up to its subtitle, which promises to take us “inside the mind of QAnon.” Instead, readers are offered a somewhat disorganized description of QAnon in general terms, without much in-depth analysis.
The authors spend significant space dismissing QAnon as nothing more than a collective lie. Again, this seems to miss much of the point of QAnon. Relying on an extended series of hypothetical scenarios meant to showcase how collective anger can be prompted through self-deception about facts, seems to mischaracterize QAnon’s actual dynamics. “The fiction allows a current of shared emotion to flood the minutiae of facts,” they assert, “[s]hared emotions create a community, washing away the moral injury” (85). QAnon may be a form of collective fiction and performative rage, certainly, but the movement is far more complex than a collective emotional deception. Moral injury is the raison d’ être of QAnon, not a symptom. Research into the minutiae of facts is the key, not something to be washed away by floods of emotion. Characterizing QAnon as collective outrage isn’t necessarily inaccurate, but does diminish the complex dynamics by which anons research and study and investigate the alleged global cabal, which subsequently fuels the outrage, which fuels more research effort.
On the whole, this book represents a good contribution to extant writing on QAnon despite the issues I describe above. Because so much of the existing writing on QAnon is journalistic, we need more scholarly and theoretical engagement with the conspiracy, especially since we will likely see a resurgence of Q conspiracies in the lead up to the 2024 elections. While I have some hesitancy about the framing and description of the conspiracy here and there, and quibble with some of the assumptions and comparisons made by the authors, I did find the book to be a useful addition to writing on QAnon, providing an accessible introduction to the conspiracy for lay readers while offering some useful insights for scholars. I think the focus on women within the movement is an important and necessary insight, especially as we ramp up for the 2024 elections, and I value the discussion of how QAnon has influenced the COVID-19 response. Because this book appeared at the moment it did, the authors offer a unique perspective, able to read the collapse of QAnon back through the conspiracy’s rise, which is useful for helping contextualize our current moment. For example, Bloom and Moskalenko detail how Nazi and racist groups on Gab and Telegram used Q’s silence and failure to predict Trump’s defeat as an opportunity to recruit from QAnon’s online followers into more radical and organized movements like the Proud Boys (116).
I am also intrigued by the authors’ attempt to schematize an “anti-conspiracy” framework for intervening in future QAnons, which is something about which I’ve spent some time thinking. How do we intervene in a decentralized, non-hierarchical, anonymized, and largely self-generated network of individuals unknown to one another who practice a fairly robust form of information literacy? It’s hard to debunk a conspiracy predicated on extensive research into people, institutions, and events, cobbled together from the incredibly vast information resources of the internet. Advancing what they describe as “Counter-Q” measures, Bloom and Moskalenko argue we should follow a “four-prong” approach: 1) building immunity to disinformation through a pedagogy of critical thinking, 2) limiting exposure by de-platforming or limiting accounts that share disinformation, 3) offer treatment to individuals trying to extricate themselves, and 4) adjust expectations of family and friends of Q believers (121-22). While I have reservations about the practicable efficacy of aspects of this “Counter-Q” approach—I don’t think de-platforming works and have questions about centralizing information control and the efficacy of literacy efforts—I applaud the effort to schematize and theorize possible responses to future conspiracies, because they will certainly arise given that the infrastructural realities persist. This book thus raises worthwhile questions about the psychological components of QAnon and proves to be suggestive about the information ecosystem in which we find ourselves.
Matthew N. Hannah is an Assistant Professor in the School of Information Studies at Purdue University.